Militant Islam: Less soldiering, more policing

Back in 2002, then aspiring US presidential candidate John Kerry began arguing that “the war on terror is far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation”.

counter_iraq1.jpgTo my ear back then, this sounded like one of Kerry’s more thoughtful contributions. In the struggle against terrors of various sorts over many years, police-style actions of all sorts have usually trumped conventional military force. A series of 20th-century conflicts, not least Vietnam, demonstrates that armoured brigades or infantry platoons do their best work fighting conventional battles. They cannot successfully chase down loose-knit, decentralised networks of militants. Once militants decide to avoid fighting in the open, there are few hard targets for cruise missiles to pick out. Human targets prove even tougher to identify. Most targets are surrounded by civilians who do not react well to seeing Hellfires flying through their neighbours’ windows. You have to convince civilian populations in downtown Islamabad and Mogadishu to turn militants in – a task for which Private John Kryswicki from Duluth, Michigan is almost uniquely ill-equipped. So emphasising intelligence-gathering and law enforcement – “police work”, if you like – sounded the sensible option.

Yet Kerry’s phrase became an embarrassment to his campaign. Through 2004, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney relentlessly argued that September 11 gave the president not just the right but the duty to call out the troops. Declared Bush, to cheering audiences: “After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers”.

I was surprised by this revulsion against law enforcement and intelligence-gathering, not least because I had always thought of US law enforcers and detectives as fairly tough characters. Late-night reality TV shows like Cops depict them charging into situations and slamming suspects against car hoods. I’ve never seen those guys serve papers. What was so wimpy about policing?

The answer, of course, is that Americans wanted a dramatic response to September 11. Promising good police-work simply did not deliver the right gut response. Large-scale war did.

But a half-decade of pandering to US dismay is enough. Now, with the weaknesses of large-scale war against militant Islam horribly exposed, it’s time to find strategies that will work. It’s time to insist on the policing approach.

The US Army vs the principles of counterinsurgency

Iraq has confirmed just how poorly soldiers cope with flexible networks of armed militants and insurgents. Western governments almost never train their soldiers in all the specialised police-style skills of counterinsurgency. The British Army learned policing skills the hard way over three decades in Northern Ireland. They had the distinct advantage that the opposing forces ranged along the Falls Road all spoke English of a sort. British sweeps through the Falls Road area nevertheless have a mixed history.

It nevertheless remains startling to find out just how little the US Army knew of effective counterinsurgency techniques in 2003. Thomas Ricks’ book Fiasco contains a section titled “The US Army vs the principles of counterinsurgency”, in which he sets out the counterinsurgency basics: minimise use of force, combine military and civil action, close the borders, treat civilians with respect and make your principal goal the winning over of the population. US commanders, he reports, seemed “flatly ignorant” of these principles. After Vietnam, the US Army had collectively decided that it did not want to know about counterinsurgency.

(The US Army now boasts a well-written and fascinating counterinsurgency manual available to the public as a 10MB PDF download.)

George Bush and the US Army chose the plain old soldiering route when they opted for war in Iraq. They’re choosing it still. The new commander of Coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, championed counterinsurgency tactics during 2003-04, when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division, and until his January 4 appointment he headed US Army officer training. Yet the newly-announced sweeps through Baghdad, a key element of the planned 2006 “surge”, seem set to be classic soldiering exercises. Thus the Coalition seems likely once again to replay our failures of the past three years.

Away from Iraq, policing is the norm

Outside Iraq and Afghanistan, though, a different pattern holds sway. In this wider world, the “war on terror” has in fact been pretty much a police exercise – detective work followed by law enforcement. US immigration and customs officials at the Canadian border foiled Ahmed Ressam’s “Millennium Plot” to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. They did it by following their policing instincts and looking in the trunk of his car. Australia and Indonesia did not send troops after Jemaah Islamiyah in the wake of the Bali Bombing; instead, the Australian Federal Police and Indonesian police co-operated to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah members. British and Pakistani agents last August uncovered the plot to simultaneously blow up as many as 10 jets leaving Britain for the US. Police and ASIO agents last week arrested a man in Sydney over the alleged theft of seven military rocket launchers.

Unlike Iraq, none of these efforts has cost large numbers of civilians their lives, alienated large Muslim populations or cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The hallmark of success in the “war on terror” has been solid police work. The hallmark of failure has been the infantry sweep.

Cross-border police work is also likely to be what saves the West from the ultimate escalation of terrorist violence – the compact nuclear weapon brought in on a freighter to destroy a major city.

Iraq is not the war on terror

As Ken Lovell has noted in a recent discussion on Troppo, John Howard argues that:

“If America is defeated in Iraq, it is hard to see how the longer-term fight against terrorism can be won.”

This formulation, designed to raise the stakes in Iraq, gets it almost exactly wrong. And just as well, since the chances of Coalition victory against the Iraq insurgency look extremely slim. Iraq is not the war on terror, no matter how hard George W. Bush works at weaving them together. Iraq has likely been lost, but the struggle against fundamentalist Islamic terrorism can still be won.

End the “war” and start winning

It is now popular to disparage John Kerry, but it seems to me that back in 2002 he got the “war on terror” exactly right. Here’s a fuller 2002 quote, taken from, of all places, the US Republican Party Web site:

1hat I think all of us need to focus on is the fact that the rhetoric of this war is overblown in some ways and not focused properly in others. This is not a war as we have known it. This is not a war in which there’s a front-line or the troops are going out every day on control. This is fundamentally an intelligence operation and the law enforcement operation and a diplomatic operation. On all three fronts, we have not been doing adequately.

Kerry has first-hand experience of this issue: he was among US officers arguing for counterinsurgency tactics while on duty in Vietnam. And in 2002, he was right. Our rhetoric is part of the problem. “The war on terror” is one of the silliest political phrases of recent years. Once you frame the fight against terror as a war, you almost automatically start marching down the path most likely to bring failure. You deploy troops and air support. You shoot missiles and bullets at targets. You alienate populations. You guarantee that for every terrorist and militant you kill, two more will spring up to take their place.

It’s time to end the “war” on terror, in order to win the fight.

This is not necessarily an argument for Australia or the US to withdraw immediately from Iraq: after three years of foolishness there, we have responsibilities to discharge. It is, however, an argument for a change of approach, of emphasis, of rhetoric. The formula for success against militant Islam over the next decade involves more policing and less soldiering, more investigation and less shooting, more Mick Keelty and less Angus Houston. Keep the strike forces and the sophisticated missiles on hand for those occasions when you have a clear shot at the leadership of a terror cell. But forswear the tactic of moving troops in amongst civilian populations unless they can be counted onto to carry out consistently effective counter-insurgency. Support border security, cargo-inspection and cross-border intelligence and policing efforts.

For politicians this is a tough ask. It will involve a lot less posturing and speechifying, and leave them vulnerable to opponents still hoping to play on the emotions stirred in 2001. US politicians who take this approach will find it harder to sound like Ronald Reagan. Australian politicians who take this approach will have to live with accusations that they are neglecting the fight against terror: police work does not lend itself to dramatic statements in front of a flag. Australian politicians may also be accused of cosying up to Indonesia, because local and regional anti-terror efforts demand a measure of co-operation with Jakarta.

But a policing approach stands a decent chance of working. The current soldiering approach seems to almost guarantee failure.

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About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (, editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. Newsletter: . Among other roles, David has edited the award-winning Acuity and INTHEBLACK magazines, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held senior policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He is a former economics writer for The Age and News Ltd. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance.
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17 years ago

First of all, Kerry voted for the war.

Second, Bush never said the WOT was going to be a conventional soldiering war. Nor is it one. He said the exact opposite. From the outset, he argued the WOT would be characterised by a combination of big military ops, policing, investigation, disruption, counter-intelligence, unseen victories and unreported battles. Kerry’s observation was disparaged because there was nothing new or interesting about it – like almost everything the four month veteran of the Vietnam War says. His colleagues, incidentally, have done everything they can to sabotage policing strategies like eavesdropping (which stopped the British Sky Terror plot of last year) and electronic surveillance.

The straight-out policing approach to terrorism was essentially the policy of the Clinton administration in response to the first WTC bombing, the embassy bombings, the USS Cole etc. This policy was a complete and utter disaster and laid the attitudinal groundwork – from al Qaeda’s perspective – for the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, Libya has folded as a bona fide bad hombre because the Colonel rightly fears being regime-changed if he gets too big for his Italian loafers. The Arab world – quite aside from what its principals babble on about in public – would love nothing more than for Iran’s nuclear facilities to be bombed to smithereens and that’s not a job for Denis Franz.

I’m not sure I’d give too many hoorahs to Keelty and the AFP either. Their slimey rendition of drug smugglers to Indonesia for execution was an act of national cowardice for which he personally should have been sacked. Bashir and others were given amnesties and early releases. That’s good policing isn’t it? Release the mastermind – why didn’t somebody else think of that?

The combination should be multi-faceted, yes. It already is. The public perception problem is the major crisis at the heart of the WOT and that is being deliberately stoked by hysterical BDS-suffering whackjobs who change their minds on everything according to propagandistic whim. The poster-boy for this kind of erratic, egomanical, partisan contrariness is none other than the junior senator from Massachusets himself – yes, good old Flipper.

17 years ago

This policy was a complete and utter disaster and laid the attitudinal groundwork – from al Qaeda’s perspective – for the 9/11 attacks.

Bin Laden took one look at Bush and knew he’d bite back. And here we are, having played straight into his hands, C.L.

17 years ago

If bin Laden took “one look” at Bush when he started planning 9/11, he must been reading the Dallas Morning News because Dubya was Governor of Texas at the time.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Great post DW.

17 years ago

Osama was probably planning attacks long before then, C.L., and devising them earlier still. America fundamentally changed when George W became President. His heavy footed trampling all over relations with China very early in his Presidency sent a clear, strong message that this was an aggressor, or, at the very least, a President block-headed (I use that term accurately here) diplomatically. He represented a whole new world, obvious immediately, in comparison with what preceeded. Mate, Osama would have loved him – couldn’t believe his luck. How “attitudinally” heightened terrorists became upon George W. Bush obtaining Presidency is any one’s guess: that it did so, however, you can bet your peace pipe on.

Ken Lovell
17 years ago

Nice post D W. It’s sad to read the number of people who still justify the Iraq project by falling back on the “Mustn’t make the same mistakes we did with Hitler” analogy. I think I first heard that argument applied to General Nasser in 1956 over Suez, but I was only 7 years old then and lacking political awareness so I might be mistaken.

Perhaps the USA is a victim of its own military might. If you get attacked on your own soil for the first time in 60 years and you’ve got more strike-power than the rest of the world put together, it must be hard to accept that all that power is useless. The instinct to unleash the dogs of war must have been overwhelming.

Unfortunately it’s easy to fall into the trap of analysing the Iraqi situation as if Australia is inevitably locked into the fate of the USA. There’s too much endless (futile) rehashing in this country of the argument about whether the USA was justified in invading Iraq, and not enough calm reflection on whether Australia was wise to tag along. Howard of course deliberately encourages this mentality that if it’s good enough for the USA to be there it’s good enough for us too – slyly ignoring those who have been and gone like the Italians, Japanese and soon the South Koreans.

It’s interesting and useful to debate American policy, but not if it diverts us from debating Australian policy (that’s a general observation, not directed at D W’s post). The matter that Australia can directly control is whether or not we maintain combat forces in Iraq. I don’t believe that we should and the contrary argument advanced by Howard – that if it’s good enough for us to quit then it’s good enough for the USA and Britain too – just avoids the issues of substance.

17 years ago

It’s an interesting post D.W. but Ireland was not Iraq by a long shot. I think the policing should have been done immediately after entry – i.e. shut down borders, looting etc el pronto. It wasn’t done. OK. The situation now calls for something more.

And what’s more, reading posts like this and many others makes me think you are selling the Americans – and the Iraqi police – very short.

17 years ago

CL, any comment that starts “Kerry voted for the war” should be immediately discounted. No one who voted for the IWR voted for Bush’s debacle. None of the reasons Bush gave for embarking on this ill conceived and immoral war have proven to be even remotely valid. From concept to execution, Bush has failed miserably.

As Sen Kerry said on the eve of the IWR vote:

“I will support a multilateral effort to disarm Iraq by force, if we have exhausted all other options. But I cannot – and will not – support a unilateral, US war against Iraq unless the threat is imminent and no multilateral effort is possible.”

Neither does Senator Kerry or any other Democrat that I have heard speak on the subject object to wiretapping. On the contrary, it’s a critical law enforcement tool when properly done. Prior to Bush’s flip-flop, he agreed:

“Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires — a wiretap requires a court order.” GW Bush 4/04

Regarding the ‘four month veteran’ comment, CL, do you also discount the military service of other veterans? Are you willing to tell the rest of the men who served on the Gridley or any vet who served stateside they should wipe that time from their service record? Sen Kerry served in the Navy on active duty from August 1966- March 1970. If my math is correct, that’s about 3 years and four months more than you suggest.

I fail to see what’s multi-faceted about Bush’s approach to war. Perhaps you can back that up with something more substantial than ‘everyone else is wrong’.

Kerry/Feingold is a multi-faceted approach which adds to intelligence, military and law enforcement, the most critical piece, diplomacy. The ISG and others are recommending a similar approach.

What is sadly missing from Bush’s plan is a plan. There is no defense for that. His arrogance has resulted in the loss of thousands of American lives and many thousands more Iraqis, billions of taxpayer dollars, and America’s moral authority.

17 years ago

Though it’s nowhere to be found in the American press, John Kerry is actually a terrorism and crime expert. If you’re really interested, you might want to see if you can find a copy of a book he wrote about 10 years ago, called The New War. It doesn’t address militant Islam too thoroughly, but it essentially puts all terrorism in the context of crime in what I think is a very astute way.

Ron Chusid
17 years ago

Excellent post. In response to CI’s comments:

“First of all, Kerry voted for the war.”

There was never a vote “for the war.” Kerry voted to give Bush authorization to use force as a last resort if we were actually proven to be threatened by WMD. He made it clear he would oppose Bush if he went to war except as a last resort. The vote was primarily to give Bush the leverage to get the inspectors back in. Bush misused the authorization

More on the IWR vote at Liberal Values. I hope its ok that I also quoted the beginning portion of this blog post there today along with a link back here.

As democrafty notes, Kerry has written extensively on terrorism. Besides the book mentioned, Kerry had op-eds in the New York Times and Foreign Affairs at the time of the vote which show his opposition to the war, with similar sentiments expressed in his Senate floor speech. Kerry urged Bush not to rush to war in his pre-war speech at Georgetown which predicted many of the problems we have faced. At the onset of the war, Kerry protested by calling for regime change in the United States.

“Second, Bush never said the WOT was going to be a conventional soldiering war. Nor is it one.”

Sure Bush is doing more than conventional war, but by far the bulk of the expenditures have been on the foolish war in Iraq.

“Kerry’s observation was disparaged because there was nothing new or interesting about it.”

Except that Kerry got it all right, while Bush was wrong in virtually every decision. Kerry was disparaged because all Republicans, who lack real ideas, can do is disparge others when they are right. Kerry has had a consistent and correct view about the war from the start, and resorting to name calling (“good old Flipper”) does not change that fact.

17 years ago

Comment in moderation?

17 years ago

…any comment that starts “Kerry voted for the war”

17 years ago

Is there a way around the apparent ultra spam-sensitivity of Troppo’s commbox?

17 years ago

Your Vietnam comments make no sense.

The Americans never tried to win that war. They didn not try and neutralise Chinese and Soviet involvement and they did not invade North Vietnam with a proxy army to decapitate the communist leadership.

You cannot as a rule win wars unless you have the goal of winning them. The victory doesn’t just sort of fall into your lap.

It is conventional forces that decapitate regimes. So no you are wrong. If they wanted to win that war they needed conventional forces and they needed the decision to be made to pin down the communist powers and decapitate the North Vietnam leadership.

A police force wouldn’t work at all. This is lunacy you are talking.

Now its the same in the current setup. If they are not willing to neutralise third parties and then decapitate Iran, Syria and others by air and proxy war there is no reason to believe that the neigbouring countries will stop running this murder campaign in Iraq.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
17 years ago

It already is. The public perception problem is the major crisis at the heart of the WOT and that is being deliberately stoked by hysterical BDS-suffering whackjobs who change their minds on everything according to propagandistic whim.

The Dolchstosslegende is alive and well, obviously.

You don’t think events on the ground might be a tiny bit more important than public perception? Or even one of the reasons why public perception is now so negative?

Nah, it’s obviously all Kerry’s fault.

17 years ago

That’s classic Birdy right there: the US lost in Vietnam because of a want of ambition. WTF? They couldn’t even control the South, and you reckon they should have begun a hot war with China and the USSR?

Thoroughly deluded as always, Birdy.

Bring Back CL's blog
Bring Back CL's blog
17 years ago

Kerry is as silly as Bush.

He voted against helping expul Iraq from Kuwait and then voted to allow Bush to invade Iraq

17 years ago

Not at all, Bill. There is no doubt violence is frequently ramped up in Iraq to impress the wannabe Kronkite Mini-Mes in the Western media and empower surrender advocates in the US. The truth is most of Iraq “on the ground” is relatively quiet and certainly not in “civil war”. The appeasement brigade wants a narrative of “catastrophe” and, periodically, various market square “insurgents” oblige them. At no time has this symbiosis been more clearly demonstrated than in the lead-up to the US mid-terms last November. A public perception that wasn’t so manifestly manipulated by this alliance of terrorists and Bush-hating lunatics might become cynical about the activity of terrorists rather than American troops. That would disempower those terrorists significantly. The misreporting of Tet is illustrative here. It was sold by journalists as a Shocking Thing, a “disaster” and an example of American retreat. In relaity, of course, the North Vietnamese were slaughtered.

17 years ago

A public perception that wasn’t so manifestly manipulated by this alliance of terrorists and Bush-hating lunatics might become cynical about the activity of terrorists rather than American troops.

Let’s break that down.

“A public perception” – born of what? Media? Where else do we get it, the public, en masse?

“that wasn’t so manifestly manipulated” – by what, again? relation to “this alliance of terrorists and Bush-hating lunatics” – where does this come from? Seriously, C.L. (and I’m not against you here, at all), where does this come from? The media?

Check it out mate. That’s the very thing, if you can do it, that hurt the non-supporters of the war in the first place. Don’t fight me on this.. this is the same thing going on, for each: the supporters and original non-supporters. What you are talking about is an alliance, which leads to a perception. Original non-supporters felt hurt by that alliance, deemed it “wrong”. Now, you are suffering the very same thing.

It leads to this:

“might become cynical about the activity of terrorists rather than American troops.” – which deeply offends you, and is an expression of that hurt.

In that there is common ground, which you just may appreciate, as some non-supporters do already, or, if you like, in return.

And it may allow another conversation between us all as to where, from each our perspectives, requirements for us all can be better met.

So in talking about public perceptions, we of course invoke the media, and behind that: alliances.

But let’s go deeper.

Doesn’t the media serve a purpose, meet demand?

On your ownsome there C.L., it clearly would be of enormous assistance if the good man Tim Blair or someone of his knowledge, could walk with you, contributing as you do – with considered insight at same length and heart.

There really is a good story to tell.


Bill Posters
Bill Posters
17 years ago

C.L. said:

Not at all, Bill. There is no doubt violence is frequently ramped up in Iraq to impress the wannabe Kronkite Mini-Mes in the Western media and empower surrender advocates in the US. The truth is most of Iraq “on the ground”